Shield keeps squirrels away from tomatoes

Hairstylist and inventor Basil Yankoglu puts one of his custom shields on a tomato plant at his home in Raleigh, N.C. He gave a Tomatoshield to his hair clients to try out, and now he sells them from a Web site.

RALEIGH, N.C. --- Basil Yankoglu hates three things: split ends, a bad dye job and squirrels.

Especially squirrels.

"Rats with a tail," the longtime hairstylist calls them.

Why the animus? Last year, Yankoglu noticed that the little devils were invading his raised beds, picking his tomato plants clean.

"I'd find eight or 10 half-eaten, nearly ripe tomatoes all over the yard," Yankoglu said. "The worst was seeing a big red, ripe one running up a tree."

He bought a pellet gun, but he's tenderhearted -- or a lousy shot. The thievery continued.

He set about finding another way to stop the pests before they got more of his crop.

That's when Yankoglu came up with the prototype for Tomatoshield, a clear plastic skirt that fastens on the lower part of the tomato plant.

The shield is firm enough that it halts squirrels trying to climb up from the ground; it's flexible and slippery enough that squirrels jumping from above slide right off.

That prototype, based loosely on the baffles used to keep predators away from bird feeders, was fashioned of one of those clear plastic trays used to collect water under plants.

Yankoglu cut the tray into the proper shape and stapled it to hang firmly around the tomato stems.

The difference was immediate.

"The squirrels started moving to the plants that didn't have the shields," he said. "When I got to the last plant, they disappeared. I guess they found another garden."

It was a handy fix, one that Yankoglu started sharing with his hair clients, including me.

"That's my test market," he said. "I have a rule of three: I experience it myself. Then I hear it from one client. And then another. And then it's a trend."

Yankoglu, who most people just call Basil, has been cutting hair, and doing his test marketing in the salon, for 33 years.

Last summer, he heard complaints about squirrels from lots of us.

He started thinking: Why not take this from his backyard to gardens everywhere?

The son of an engineer who developed two-part epoxy for DuPont decades ago, Yankoglu had tried inventing and marketing. He has two patents for hair products.

By Christmas, he had zeroed in on just the right thickness of plastic, perfected the shape and tested the fasteners.

He got a logo and Web site, tomatoshields.com, and had lined up a Cary, N.C., company, Dura Tech, to produce the shields.

Joy Watson, the marketing director for Atlantic Avenue Orchid & Garden Center in Raleigh, said she talked to a customer who was going to try planting tomatoes one more year before surrendering to the squirrels.

"For us, this product is really fun," Watson said. "It's a great example of a local gardener's ingenuity."

Yankoglu is also working on taking his product nationwide.

The biggest surprise has been how many people are purchasing Tomatoshields for use as inexpensive, see-through baffles for their bird feeders.

So perhaps our beloved hair guy needs to reconsider the name of his creation. Squirrelshield? Crittershield?

Personally, I like "Basilshields."

More